Note: This article was first published in December 2018 after an exclusive interview that Yogesh Shah gave to Dr Balraj Shukla for Troll Tennis
In the western part of India lies Gujarat, a state which is home to over 6,00,00,000 people and is considered to be India’s ninth largest state in terms of land area. For a normal person, the idea of instilling a new sport and making an entire state play it would sound nearly an impossible task to accomplish. This ideology is exactly what separates a layman from a legend. The story of Mr. Yogesh Shah is one of a kind.
After completing his Masters in Industrial Structures from Surathkal (Mangalore) in 1980, Shah came back to his native at Ahmedabad. In his college days, Shah had been an exceptional cricketer and was captain of the National Institute of Technology (Karnataka) and represented as an all-rounder the Mysore University. However, upon homecoming, he realized he didn’t have a group to play with and so began his hunt for an individual sport which he could play lifelong.
In Ahmedabad, he visited the Ahmedabad City Tennis Foundation. It was here when Shah realized that Lawn Tennis was a sport that was played in over 150 countries but wasn’t quite a known sport in Gujarat. Shah never got formal coaching at the venue and held an orthodox grip while swinging his racquet. Only member players of the venue were allowed to play in those courts but seeing the dedication of Shah, the manager gave him the liberty to come early in the morning and practice with other member players.
Shah came across multiple hitting partners and in the process developed a healthy rapport with many young tennis players. Yogesh Shah was 30 years old at that time and on the basis of his merit he was sponsored to go to USA to complete a certificate course from the United States Professional Tennis Registry (USPTR).
Upon his return to India, Shah decided to play some tennis tournaments and in a year’s time became the State No.1 tennis player. The turning point in Shah’s career came when he met St.Xavier College’s tennis and cricket mentor, Brother Lobo. As Shah describes, Brother Lobo was a man with a long beard and had a true sense of spirit and reverence towards sports. When Lobo learnt about Shah’s ascend, he asked the latter to join his coaching team in St.Xavier’s college. Shah readily agreed to the proposal and became a part-time coach at the college.
A number of students benefited from the coaching offered by Brother Lobo and Yogesh Shah. Even before Sania Mirza became a popular tennis diva of the country, there was one girl whom Lobo and Shah had jointly coached. This girl was named Natasha Joshi. Back then, the era of electronics was yet to transcend. However, seeing the talent that she possessed, Shah and Lobo helped Joshi to reach the draws of the Australian Open and US Open in the juniors’ category. She would reach as high as No.47 in the juniors circuit and had competed against players like Lindsay Davenport, Lisa Raymond and Chanda Rubin who would go on to be internationally recognized players later in their careers. Joshi would also partner Leander Paes in mixed doubles tournaments. At the SAF Games, she bagged two silver and three bronze medals for India. The successful stint between Yogesh Shah and Brother Lobo hit the brakes shortly after.
“One fine day I had to sign in my cheque book but I failed to move my hand.”
As mentioned previously, Yogesh Shah had never received any formal tennis coaching and had continued to stick with his orthodox playing style. The resulting effect that it had on his wrist was unwanted. Shah was unable to move his wrist and immediately consulted an orthopaedist. It turned out that not one but multiple specialists told him that his career in tennis was over and he can no longer play the sport. Fortune came in his way when one orthopaedist gave him some hope. He explained Shah that one of his metacarpals had stopped receiving the necessary blood supply due to which it had shrunk in size. This affected his surrounding muscles and hence the restricted movement.
“One orthopaedist told me that I have to get a plaster strapped on my hand and it needs to stay there for one year. After an year, we will check the progression and see if a surgery is needed or not.”
Shah consulted his family and later showed his willingness to get his right hand strapped for the next 365 days. Despite this painful injury, Shah did not want his sporting career to halt. The moment he stepped out of the hospital after getting his right wrist strapped, he started playing and developing his game with his left hand. Shah approached Brother Lobo and told him about his ailing right hand. Lobo was disappointed initially and was further crestfallen when Shah told him that he had thus decided to end his tennis career. Seeing the evident disappointment on Lobo’s face, Shah had glimpses of the past. He realized how hard Lobo had worked to get Natasha Joshi get into the bigger stages of the game and how the same man bestowed his trust upon him as a coach over the years. A spurt of adrenaline gushed within Shah and it was only a moment of seconds when he reverted back his decision and showed his determination to continue with tennis. Lobo was an elated man and when he realized that Shah had already began to hone his skills with the left hand, he was over the moon. Such was Shah’s grasping that he made it back into the Top 4 of the State rankings. Lobo was so impressed by Shah’s achievements that he asked him to join as a full-time coach despite his hand strapped.
“I was willing to take the job. But I felt odd in accepting it as I didn’t want Lobo to feel that I am coaching without holding a racquet in my hand. But Lobo said he valued me enough and would be more than happy even if I stood there and advised all the players.”
Soon after, Shah became a full-time coach and left his job as an engineer. The agreement between Lobo and Shah was based on verbal communication and no written proof existed which stated that Shah was now a full-time coach. One year got over quickly and it was time for the heavy plaster on the right wrist to be removed. When the doctor examined Shah’s hand which had now grown thinner, he said, “You can now go back to playing tennis.” Shah was jubilant after hearing those words and got on the court immediately. However, after playing two shots, spikes of pain traversed his right arm and Shah consulted the doctor next day immediately. The doctor advised him to get back on court and play a few more shots with more strength.
“The mind said no because I was having severe pain. The doctor told me my pain was psychological. And so as per his advice I decided to play a few shots with more power. It turned out that the doctor was absolutely right and my pain was completely psychological.”
Shah ended his tenure as a southpaw soon and was back to playing his natural orthodox game as a right-handed player. For around 15 days, Lobo stopped coming to give coaching to the players and only Shah would be available on the courts. Shah was filled with grief when he came to know that Lobo was diagnosed with cancer. Days later, Lobo passed away. Today, each year St.Xavier’s organizes the Brother Lobo Cricket tournament in his honor.
Since there was no written agreement that stated that Shah was a full-time coach, Lobo’s passing away meant Shah had to discontinue as the coach. He was now jobless and detached from tennis too. A month later, Shah was lucky enough to get his job back, but tennis had already become his love and the dream of starting a tennis academy for the masses, stayed on his mind. But to start an academy one needs a large area of land. Despite being a civil engineer himself, Shah found it a treacherous task to ask for a vast area of land that can house a tennis court.
“After my office timings, I would ride my Bajaj two-wheeler and go on a hunt for the land. I consulted a few friends, farmers, schools, colleges, Ahmedabad Urban Development Area (AUDA), AMC (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation), Government of Gujarat, but none of them responded.”
Another obstacle came in Shah’s path when he saw the uproar against his notion of starting a tennis academy from his parents and wife. “We live in India. Such things are not possible here,” said his father. But Shah was reluctant and stood steadfast to his decision. The family of Yogesh Shah was a religious one and believed in Pramukh Swami, the President of an international Hindu socio-spiritual organization. Looking at Shah’s stubbornness of starting a tennis academy, Shah’s father told him that they would meet Pramukh Swami and then agree with whatever he says.
“I was absolutely against the idea just because it sounded so odd. To ask Pramukh Swami something like this would be embarrassing. Besides, he might not even know what tennis is.”
But as it was meant to be, the family set out on a two-day journey and met Pramukh Swami. When Swami heard the entire story, much to Shah’s relief he was given the green light from the President of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha after much interrogation. Now that his hurdle from home had cleared away, Shah set out again to find a piece of land. After searching a lot, one of his friends showed him an area which was spread over 12,000 square yards. Much against his will, Shah unfortunately had to turn down the offer since it was located far from his home and also in an isolated area. Today, the theme based restaurant named Rajwadu is located in the same spot which was shown to Shah by his friend and the restaurant was later visited by the current Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi.
“I later gave up all the hope I had and thought that let me just continue with the conventional route of life and forget about the academy.”
A few days later, Shah got an anonymous call. Dhanjibhai Patel, a farmer, told Shah that he had a land that he can offer which suited his needs. Shah had travelled extensively for two years looking for a land and had met a few farmers along the way but none of them was named Dhanjibhai Patel. He got to know that it was via one of his fellow farmers that Dhanjibhai came to know about Shah’s needs. When they talked on call, the farmer asked the civil engineer to meet him. The rendezvous spot was a vast farming land behind Karnavati Club. Shah readily accepted the offer according to which, he was to keep a majority portion of the land but a minor portion of it would still be owned by Dhanjibhai who would continue farming in that little space.
The fencing and inauguration was done but nearly a week passed by and Dhanjibhai noticed that no progress had been made on the land. He would see Shah visit the land, stare in oblivion and go back home. Coming from a middle-class family, Shah knew that as much as he wished to start a tennis academy, he did not have the required money that he had to pay as rent. Dhanjibhai read Shah’s mind vividly and on the sixth day approached him and told him that he knows about his monetary troubles. The next moment, Shah was astonished as he saw Dhanjibhai take out 1,00,000 INR from his pocket and give it to him.
“I was stunned and I thought that God himself had descended on Earth in the form of Dhanjibhai. I refused to take the money initially but he(Dhanjibhai) told me that he could see how dedicated I was and how genuine my cause was. He told me that you can repay me the money any time you want with whatever interest convenient to you.”
Thereafter, things started to turn around for Shah. Like a galloping horse on an open green field, there was no looking back for the Amdavadi. Ever since the beginning of his sporting career, he was constantly supported and guided by his partner & civil engineer Mr. Mansukh Patel. Shah also gives credit to his wife Manuja Shah (Deputy Secretary, Government of Gujarat) who supported him in each stage in his career. Mr.Patel would help Shah in the construction of the courts. Initially, three cow-dung courts were made on the land and soon three became six and six converted to nine.
In 1992, after toiling incessantly and blessings of an angel’s luck in the form of a farmer, Yogesh Shah became the first ever man to begin a tennis academy in Gujarat which went by the name, “REAL Tennis Centre.” For eight years Shah successfully ran the academy, conducted various tournaments for youngsters, gave employment by hiring coaches for the academy, organized summer camps and also saw the then captain of the Indian Davis Cup, Akhtar Ali, conduct multiple workshops. Ali coached the Indian Davis Cup side for more than 20 years.
At the age of 44, Shah realized that he did not want his own tennis skills to fade away and hence got detached from the academy in search for excellence in the ITF circuit. He handed over the academy to Pramesh Modi, who would later name the academy to “ACE Tennis Academy.” Recently, the academy ended its glorious run as the land was to be evacuated for further development. However, for Shah, the spark that he wanted to instill in the minds of Gujaratis was already ablaze and people became more and more familiar with the game of lawn tennis.
In order to improve his own game, Shah decided to play on the ITF Seniors’ circuit in the 45+ age group category. Within 1 year, he reached the numero uno spot in India (first from Gujarat) and soon after became the Asian No.1 in the 45+ category after winning the ITF Asia Senior’s Open Title at Bangkok in 2007.
A decade later, Shah joined the 55+ age group category and was crowned the No.1 player in the National rankings (first from Gujarat). In 2016, he became the first ever player from Gujarat to be selected for the Indian Team for the ITF Seniors’ World Championship at Helsinki, Finland. He has won multiple titles on the Senior’s circuit at Abu Dhabi, Pakistan, Dubai, Malaysia, China, Singapore, etc. Despite numerous accolades that illuminated his career, Shah regards his journey of reaching the Top 4 in the State rankings by playing with his left hand (when his right hand was strapped with plaster) as the biggest achievement of his career.
“People find it difficult to get into the Top 4 in the men’s rankings by playing with their right hand. I did it with my left hand (laughs).”
Yogesh Shah is currently ranked at No.3 in India in the 55+ category. At 62 years of age, he still plans to play multiple tournaments and is keen to hit the courts in Egypt next. This year, he won a doubles title in December 2018 at the All India Seniors National Ranking Tennis Tournament. Recently, he won two Gold Medals at the Khel Mahakumbh organized by the Government of Gujarat which took his tally to a total of four gold medals that he has won at the tournament over the years.
Today, multiple tennis players from Gujarat have benefited from Shah’s vision. Players like Ankita Raina and Zeel Desai are gradually rising in the ranks in the tennis field and are proud representatives from the state of Gujarat. At the end of the day, one can only think how auspicious that day must be when Yogesh Shah crossed his path with Dhanjibhai, a farmer who probably had no idea how ground-breaking his generosity could mean for every played holding a tennis racquet in the state of Gujarat right now.
“Today when I see and learn about my students achieving various heights in their sporting career I feel immensely satisfied and feel blissful from the heart that what I once imagined about has turned out to be fruitful in reality for so many people.”
Update: As of November 2022, Yogesh Shah is still competing in ITF’s Masters Tour in the 65+ age group category. In 2022, he has won one MT100 in Jaipur, 2 MT200 titles in Jhajjar and Pune, and 2 MT400 titles in Mumbai and Indore. After finishing his 2021 season outside the Top 500, he now finds himself positioned at No.89 as of October 2022